You Need Something to Care About

I spent a good portion of my teenage years, and even some of my young-adult years, dealing with what some clinicians would call depression. A certain doctor prescribed me two different medications for it during my first years of high school. Thankfully, both medications gave me terrible side effects, and I had to stop taking them.

Why am I thankful, you ask? Because I was so turned off by the experience that I never took another prescription antidepressant again for the rest of my life. I won’t touch them at all, and I plead with anyone thinking about taking them to consider another option. The reason is simple: unless you have a bona fide mental illness, which the vast majority of people do not have, all they do is make you feel artificially, temporarily good at the expense of feeling genuinely good in the long term.

What I needed, I have come to realize, is not something that would make me feel good, but something to feel good about. I didn’t need something to make me oblivious to my rut, but something real to get me out of it. That’s what it was—not clinical depression or some other illness over which I had no control, but a rut, created by years and years of feeling useless. I had few Trained Monkeyuseful skills, and among the few I had, I barely used any of them. Every job I’d had was a daily regimen of repetitive tasks that a machine or a trained monkey could have done sufficiently—collecting money, slapping together prefabricated sandwiches, carrying boxes, counting things, and so on. The rest of my time was spent “relaxing” and spending the money I’d earned.

As a result, I had nothing to keep me tethered to this world. Sure, I have a family, but it’s not as if I earned my family. They’ve been around since the beginning, and their existence or well-being doesn’t depend on me in any meaningful way. It might be different if I had children, but I don’t.

What eventually got me out of the rut was the realization that I can use my hands and my brain to be productive in whatever way I choose. The more I choose to be productive in that way, the better I will get at it, and the more good I can do for myself and others. And this wasn’t some meaningless, theoretical epiphany I had while sitting in a coffee shop and writing sad poetry. It happened while I was becoming more content with my life because I was doing things that made me care about living.

Spider PlantThese things I was doing weren’t all that special, either. I wasn’t saving the world one oily duck at a time or slow-roasting Sally Struthers to feed starving children. One of the first things was very simple: taking care of houseplants that people had left to die. As tasks go, taking care of plants is not very demanding. Make sure the plant looks healthy and is in an appropriate container. Arrange it near a window or other source of consistent sunlight. Water it on a regular schedule, and occasionally add plant food or another source of nutrition. The entire routine averaged about a half-hour each week.

That half-hour each week made a remarkable difference in my life. In most of the jobs I’d had, if I quit, another trained monkey could be immediately summoned to step into my place. I was as replaceable as a light bulb, perhaps even more so. On the other hand, I was responsible for those plants. If I quit caring for them, they would die. Their existence depended on my ability and willingness to continue caring for them. I was proud of how good they looked, and I wanted to keep them looking that way.

Around the same time as I started growing houseplants, I also got my first job doing something that didn’t make me feel like a trained monkey—proofreading for a publishing company. It was an enormous breakthrough for me. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t replaceable; there were plenty of other proofreaders, but they and I were doing something a lot more complex than pushing buttons and pulling levers for eight hours a day.

From there, I took off. I met people from all over the business and made my way into a specialized niche for which my growing skill set was very well suited. I got there because I took the time to assess my talents and work at them until I was good enough to use them professionally.

More importantly, though, I found what I had been missing all those years. I actually cared about what I was doing, whether it was fine-tuning educational materials or making sure my plants weren’t withering. What I was doing may not have mattered in a saving-the-world kind of way, but it mattered to me. I kept caring for the plants because it was important to me. I didn’t spend every day at work wishing I could tell off my boss and storm out the door; I spent them trying to complete work I could be proud of. I felt useful, and it’s really difficult to feel depressed and useful at the same time.

Generally, when people feel depressed, unless it’s because of a genuine dysfunction in their hormone systems, it’s not really depression they’re feeling. It’s easy to associate the feeling with depression because it’s similar to the feelings that come along with grief—most notably that you can’t do anything about it. You feel impotent. Helpless. Useless.

Lazy Kid on CouchYou feel that way when people die because you literally can’t do anything about it. But in the rest of life, that’s seldom the case; you feel that way because of constant inaction. You become stagnant and lack purpose. Fortunately, though, you can do something about that: be useful. Give yourself something to care about. It doesn’t have to be anything super-important, and in fact, it’s best to start small. Pick a talent you know you have or a skill you’re interested in building, and make a habit out of spending at least a half-hour a week doing something related to it—not thinking about it, not planning it, but doing it.

And I don’t mean going online and click-click-clicking your way to some pointless array of green pixels that you can pretend is a farm. Make a list of your talents, pick one that appeals to you in that moment, and use it to create something or meaningfully help someone. Don’t overthink it or come up with excuses to stall; just do it. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to do better if your first, second, or twentieth attempt is a flop.

It could be something as simple as this article in front of you; if it helps even one person feel good in the long term, it was well worth all of the thought and keystrokes I put into it. Through my own effort, I will have created something positive that wouldn’t exist without me. Even if no one who reads it gains anything from it, or no one reads it at all, it will have been worthwhile because I can use the experience to write a better article in the future.

That is the one thing that seems missing in many people’s lives, and the most major barrier to natural, non-drug-induced happiness. Many people spend so much of their time chasing subsistence money that they think that’s all there is to life—pushing buttons, pulling levers, and collecting paychecks until they die. Uselessness is one of the most depressing feelings in the world, and there is really only one solution to it: be productive.

[Kudos to David Wong at for inspiring me to write this via his article, 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person, which I highly recommend.]